I used to be very picky when I was a child. I mean, who orders a cheese burger without any cheese? Macaroni and cheese was fine, pizza was fine, but burgers with cheese? No, I don’t trust it. I had to warm up to quite a lot of foods most people take to very easily, like tuna, tomatoes, mushrooms, green beans, onions, a Caesar salad, corn flakes, asparagus, and more recently, guacamole. I was so stubborn I would not try anything that hadn’t been deep fried or covered in sugar. I was the kid who added sugar to his Frosted Flakes… (Still paying for it during my afternoon jogs)
Consumption is a very common motif in fantastic literature. Sometimes it represents a moral decision, such as the story of Adam and Eve, or perhaps personal growth. I need only mention the phrase “Eat me, drink me” and you know where I’m coming from. A character like Alice finds a mysterious source of nourishment, sometimes a spring or a lake, and has to make the tough choice of deciding whether or not to consume the foreign agent. It is usually out of desperation, with the feeling that if the character chooses not to consume, he or she will quite possibly perish. In Alice’s case, she has no choice but to try following the instructions, since she cannot go back the way she came and the way ahead appears blocked. Though the effects of the food and drink cause Alice much distress initially, she quickly learns to use them to her advantage to help her gain the ability to advance in her journey.
Of course one of the clear messages children can learn in this scene is moderation; i.e., do not let consumption overtake your need or you drown yourself in your own tears, a wonderful piece of imagery that lead to the well-known saying, “Cry me a river.”
The bigger point I’d like to make, however, is that consumption is deeply personal, perhaps the most direct form of acceptance we can express, often showing trust and appreciation towards your provider/host. We see this in Snow White as she innocently ingests the poison apple from the evil queen. We are taught to be warry of strangers who might be trying to harm us and our way of life. It reminds me of the 2000 film Chocolat, which stars Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Alfred Molina, and Johnny Depp. Though not strictly a fantasy, Chocolat borrows this trope to feature its romance elements as the main character Vianne Rocher, played by Binoche, gradually charms the townsfolk of a small post-WWII French town with her Chocoaterie, just as the people begin observing their forty-day period of lent. Here, as more people begin consuming Rocher’s chocolate products, the more accepting they become of her as an outsider with a lifestyle that is at first seen at odds with the conservative values of the Comte Reynaud, played by Alfred Molina. For as much resistance as Reynaud offers to drive Rocher out of town, by the end, he breaks his vows, by literally breaking into the Chocoaterie and consuming the entire display before waking up in the morning covered in chocolate.
In Chocolat, food is used to repair fractured relationships, spice up people’s sex lives, and bring people together across cultural boundaries. How does Rocher’s chocolate possess this power? It’s the same answer for Love Potion # 9, The Nutty Professor, and that Sarah Michelle Geller film Simply Irresistible. The food presents the character’s core virtue, or vice in the case of the evil queen. We also see this trope in The strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as Dr. Jekyll’s repressed anger towards 19th century norms of propriety become realized in his laboratory.
To be sure, it would be unfair to judge a person’s character by the quality of his/her cooking or how well you did in potion making class. The trope, however, is especially useful for elegantly developing the personality traits of characters that are particularly introverted. What is this person feeding me? Is it the poisoned apple or ambrosia? Is it a Caesar salad or Frosted Flakes–did I get that order right 😉
Feel free to try a taste of French sweetness below!
Recipe for Chocolate Mendiants